Nov. 18, 2019

Micro-case study: High and low tech solutions for active learning

Learn how three instructors from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, the Haskayne School of Business and the Faculty of Kinesiology leverage high and low tech solutions to engage students and increase active learning.

The thread that connects our group is a deep interest in authentic student engagement. The three of us met at New Academic Orientation and decided to create an inter-faculty teaching square, which we fondly refer to as a teaching triangle. Teaching squares are designed to enhance teaching and learning and to build community through a process of reciprocal peer observation, self-reflection and group discussion (Berenson, 2017).

Over the next two terms, our group observed each other’s teaching in three distinct disciplines and contexts. When we visited classrooms from different disciplines, we realized that our focus shifted away from content and sharpened our ability to concentrate on active learning techniques and we discovered how we were all leveraging learning technologies to increase engagement.

High-tech and low-tech solutions

Dr. Jerrod Smith, PhD, from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics had hundreds of students. He started one large calculus class with a Top Hat question that invited students to take risks and test their knowledge in a low-stakes yet exciting way. He mirrored his iPad in real time on a projection screen as he drew problems and mapped out processes. He paused long enough to let students explore and play with a question in small groups. These discussions were roughly three minutes — just long enough for students to dive-in and engage with the content before bringing the class back together.

Similarly, Lesley Tims from the Haskayne School of Business projected Excel while having students work in small groups in her finance class of 50 people. It proved to be a high engagement practice that connected students deeply to what they were learning to do in her class. Lesley deepened the impact of student activity through offering options and toggling between calculators and Excel while moving quickly between small groups, scaffolding each group's exploration of both the task and the technology they were using.

Dr. Cari Din, PhD, from the Faculty of Kinesiology taught a coaching behaviour classroom of 75 students. In this environment, active learning looked like students standing up, forming small groups, and sometimes voting on a question through the space in the room they elected to stand in. She made active learning physically dynamic for her kinesiology students.

On the surface, these technologies and approaches may seem and certainly look unrelated; however, we noticed that each was contextually and spatially effective. For example, in Smith's huge stadium-style theatre, asking students to stand and move around the room with fixed seating would be difficult. In Tim's finance class, experimenting with the technology and tools is central to the skills and content she is teaching. In Din's class, linking students’ lived experiences with course content is an active learning essential.

Engagement through relevance and transparency

Active learning was enabled in all three classrooms most frequently by connecting students in the room with vivid and relevant examples. In Tim's finance class, student engagement peaked when she compared the expense of two different cell-phone contracts. Smith's students could visualize the problem at hand as he explained a Rocky Mountain-related example using wolves and bears. In Din's class, small groups were asked to submit a written example from their final discussion on an index card, often called an exit ticket (Wakeford, n.d.). Din explained the purpose of the exercise and how she was going to use these notes in the following class. The relevance of these thoughtfully designed yet simple engagement practices set the stage for students to learn actively.  

Student-centred approaches are key

We observed the importance and benefit of taking the time to place students at the centre of learning in each other's work. If Smith had used contextual cues that were not relevant to his students, engagement would have dropped. If Din had not explained the value of students’ comments on the cards, feedback would have been thin; and if Tims discussed retirement planning rather than cell-phone contracts, you can imagine the shift in most undergraduate students’ interest!

In our teaching, we saw an abiding commitment to creating an environment for students to explore new ideas, to connect their learning to their previous experience and to spend time working closely with peers in the classroom. Small design features reaped great rewards in relation to active learning across our disciplines, teaching philosophies and students.



Berenson, C. (2017). Teaching Squares: Observe and reflect on teaching and learning, TI Connections. Retrieved from:    on-teaching-and-learning/

Wakeford, L. (n.d.) Sample exit tickets. Retrieved from: